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Re-tweet This: Personal Branding through Social Media is the New Rhetoric of PersuasionbyChristina Cancelli
"Twitter War? What's that? It sounds violent. I don't like it." The students respond in laughter and one says, "You're so old." Unfortunately and comically, this is a real account of an exchange that occurred in my English 11 classroom. It should be noted that I am a little less than one generation removed from my students in age, and this specific exchange occurred several years ago. However, the small exchange has stayed with me because it is a salient reminder of changing communication platforms, of how my students use these platforms in their everyday lives, and how different it is from my own experience. Communication platforms can be defined as what once was a telephone call to the current, ever-changing forms of online interaction. These platforms are where people, young people especially, are interfacing. More importantly, this brief exchange with my students revealed that these platforms were an avenue I wasn't capitalizing on to connect our classroom concepts to their real, everyday lives. I had the students tell me all about Twitter wars, when they chose to participate in them, and why they cared so much. I had a working knowledge of what Twitter was then, but my students were introducing an unfamiliar element, and therefore this intrigued me to inquire further. My classroom is a learning community, and my students have certain expertise I simply do not. Of course, I could have asked a tech savvy friend or simply Googled it, but when a moment arises where students can confidently get up and speak on a topic with expertise, I welcome it. It allows them to shine and allows me to learn. If I can show my vulnerability and lack of knowledge to them, then slowly they feel more comfortable airing their own vulnerability. When that happens, the true learning can begin.
Moments like this occur all the time. Several months ago, my students were hotly discussing a conflict that originated over a Snapchat. At the time, I had no idea what Snapchat was, and if being candid, I still do not understand the concept fully today. It is, to my best understanding, a form of social media created by students at Stanford where the distinguishing factor is the time-limited experience of exchanging video and photo messages to selected users where the message can be seen only once and for no more than ten seconds. I know it enough to summarize it in a sentence through my discussion with them, but it is my students who know what to do with it. They are the experts. Honestly, I do not really 'get it' because I do not use it, but that is okay. The point is that there is going to be an ever-changing, ever-evolving stream of media platforms, so the names and distinguishing functions become less important. What is important is that the platform of social media in general is where today's students operate. It is where they live. It is where they are finding belonging, heartbreak, and often times, it is where they are finding a voice. So as an educator, it is the impact of this platform on my students' lives that is most significant, and as a result of its popularity, pervasiveness, and sheer dominance in today's culture, it is worth our time and attention as educators to investigate its place in our classrooms.
This curriculum unit looks mainly at the social media platforms of Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, but if this were written a decade ago, a focus would be the application of MySpace perhaps. The name and specifics of any given social media platform are less important than the intensely with which students engage with them. Therefore, even when Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram become social media elderly, this unit will still be useful and purposeful because the concepts will transcend the specific platforms and still meet the intended objectives. Fluidity in platform, or arena, is expected and welcomed for it will continue to provide a rich source for teachable moments where students can take the podium.
Specifically, this unit will focus on how the social media platforms which today's students are already actively engaging can serve as a new way to utilize and showcase the art of persuasion effectively. We, as a learning community, will spend time on understanding academic persuasive techniques, personal branding, and the nuances of each social media platform focusing on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. The traditional rhetorical tropes of ethos, pathos, and logos marry organically with the topic of social media, and making that connection in a classroom context will make those classical persuasive devices come to life. Quite simply, social media is ethos amplified and personified. Specifically regarding personal branding, we will define personal branding as a practice of selling yourself on multiple platforms, and the mark of success will be if others buy what is being sold – the personal brand. The emphasis will be on social media and examples of pillars in today's culture that are immediately recognizable such as Oprah and Michael Jordon. In the end, students will be able to use their knowledge of branding and persuasion to be more cognizant of their own digital footprint and savvy about what they choose to do with it.
Demographics of School and District
Currently, I teach eleventh grade English in Richmond City Public Schools at Franklin Military Academy. Given that my school is not a traditional comprehensive high school, there several distinctions worth noting. First, students travel from all over the city and the total student population is only around 375. There is only one teacher per subject grade level, so all students required to take English 11 would have to take my course with no alternative offered. It is a militarily run school in which each morning begins with formation and orders of the day. Students are dressed daily in army uniforms and earn military rank through a JROTC structure. Students are given leadership roles, and this translates to potential additional responsibilities in the classroom as well. It is encouraged that they are self-governing. For example, if there is a grievance, pt (i.e.: physical training) is an appropriate, often-used consequence. This may be conducted or initiated by a teacher or a student with higher rank. Teachers are also addressed with military rank and respect; I hold the rank of Captain, and the students address me as such.
Aside from the military distinction, the students are not unlike any other population of children in Richmond City. The population of students labeled economically disadvantaged by federal standards is just over 91%. The ethnic breakdown of our students is roughly 94% African American, 4% white, and 2% Indian/Hispanic, and the gender breakdown is close to a 50/50 ratio. Due to the number of students in our school, the student to teacher ratio is smaller than that of our comprehensive school counterpart at roughly 15:1. Additionally important to note, we are entering our third year of being in federal school improvement, and although we are making great strides, we still have some areas of weakness in that we are continuing to work on collectively as a school.
One of the most succinct definitions of media literacy states that it "builds an understanding of the role of media in society as well as essential skills of inquiry and self-expression necessary for citizens of a democracy… and provides framework to access, analyze, evaluate, create and participate with messages in a variety of forms." 1 In education, we use this term constantly, but what is more pertinent for the terms of this unit would be to delve into digital literacy which takes the foundations of media literacy and focus more on the digital tools available via online forums. The University of Illinois defines digital literacy as, "A person's ability to perform tasks effectively in a digital environment... literacy includes the ability to read and interpret media, to reproduce data and images through digital manipulation, and to evaluate and apply new knowledge gained from digital environments." 2 Today's student is fluent in digital literacy without much effort. They are digital natives in the world, and as educators, we need to create a depth of fluency so we can enhance classroom subject matter and capitalize on the platforms they engage in everyday.
As educators, we know that students enter our classroom with a wide variety of knowledge, competencies, and experiences. As educators, we know that research shows we should meet students where they are and build their competencies to where we want them to be. However, in reality, we know how complex and difficult this is to achieve. It is not uncommon for an average high school teacher to have thirty-five students at twenty different levels of competencies with further differentiation in cultural background and other distinguishing factors. Therefore, it strikes me as exceptionally significant that when it comes to social media fluency, today's student is almost universally active and at the least extremely familiar with the platform and application. Twitter and Instagram are as a part of their everyday lives as lesson plans and gas prices are to us. So, if Twitter and Instagram are the language our students are speaking, then why as educators don't we speak their language to deliver our message. Social media is one of the only places where students are homogeneously fluent with such a low degree of differentiation. They know Instagram. They live Facebook. They speak Twitter. So, as educators, to ignore these platforms that are so pervasive is ignoring a meeting place where we can engage the student and build their awareness and understanding.
The benefit to an educator of utilizing social media in the classroom is evident, but the advantage is ultimately and substantially with the student. There is a grave need for students to look more critically at what they are posting. It is essential that the learning community engage in academic dialogue and apply scholastic techniques to analyzing their online persona. A chief concern with such high potencies and prevalence of social media in student's lives is that they are not cognizant of the long term ramifications of what they put out to the public. They are often depicting themselves in a light to appeal to their adolescent peers for immediate satisfaction or gain, and never pause to consider how the same post would be viewed by someone else. Critical thinking regarding audience is most essential because social media exists in an easily-accessible public forum where access is a click away. These are not simply locker room conversations, but instead are recorded words, photos, and ideas that can be indexed and accessed by an innumerable about of people.
In this instance, social media creates a perfect teachable moment within in the context of an English class as there is no more appropriate time to discuss, analyze, and consider the concept of intended audience. To have students critically evaluate the anticipated reaction from a different audience, a college admissions representative or potential employer for example, will hopefully begin to change the way students think about what is posted and who has access to it. Therefore, in an English class, with a unit on persuasion, social media is the perfect platform to critically discuss audience and the ethos of the internet in general. Additionally perfect is the way in which social media parallels and aligns with the tropes of persuasion. For example, ethos would be the trust in the post or persona, and pathos can be seen as the appeal to a follower's emotion to elicit a positive response such as a follow, like, or retweet. Many young social media users skip the critical step of logical analysis, or logos, when it comes to their social media use, and if incorporated and studied critically, true persuasion can be translated. The unit, at its core, is about persuasion and branding, but the vehicle is social media because it is pertinent to the life of our students and works well with personal branding and utilizing persuasive tropes.
To illustrate the above point, I asked a former student to send me snapshots of her various social media accounts. After reviewing her online thumbprint, we had a conversation concerning her numerous social media accounts and who is viewing them. Looking specifically at her relationship with Instagram highlighted how significant the element of critical thinking was absent in her thought process and relationship with social media in general. Her Instagram account is private, but it alone had just over 2,000 followers at the time of our conversation. I asked her to describe her followers in general, and she responded with "they're young, but not too young, and not old like you." For the purpose of context, let it be noted that I am less than eleven years older than her. Next, I inquired as to how many of her followers she actually knew in 'real life'- as in people she has had in-person interaction. She struggled with this for a moment as it was never something she consciously considered, and after some thought, she said, "I guess about 40%." To deduce, 60% percent of her followers amounts to roughly 1,200 strangers with direct access to her photos and other information. The questions pertaining to her "brand" and what her followers like most often were the toughest for her, and after much discussion, she ended with, "I don't know… They like my face I guess. Let me get back to you after I think about it."
The above exchange highlights the online audience conundrum and the lack of thought concerning 'who's looking'. Alice Marwick and Danah Boyd specifically address this with their research on the "imaginary interested party" and found that most find that "the ideal audience is often the mirror-image of the user." 3 To additionally convolute navigating an online audience, Marwick and Boyd also discuss the notion of "flattening multiple audiences in to one" thus creating a "context collapse," 4 where it is an all for one approach regarding online post viewing, and this is where people, especially adolescents, lack the critical forethought and face consequences when their audience may include prospective employers, college administrators, and family members; therefore, this unit will use persuasive techniques and critical thinking to look at where anticipated audience, desired audience, and actual audience meet.
Background on Branding and Social Media
The true challenge should not be to include social media aspects in a persuasive unit, but instead the question should be how to do so. A great starting point is the Henry Jenkins analysis of convergence and media. He begins with older forms of media such as film and TV and connects those to the rampant use of online forums and highlights how the impact of each and their coexistence with one another shaped and changed their presence and purpose by stating, "Media convergence is more than simply a technological shift. Convergence alters the relationship between existing technologies, industries, markets genres and audience." 5 It is not about the dying of one technology for another, but rather how the evolution of technologies shapes the technology itself and our relationship with it. To further analyze this, Jenkins introduces his black box fallacy which in short states that our lives, entertainment choices, and media content in general will all be sourced by one black box, but further describes the fault to lie with the change in technology and media without much consideration for the changing culture. Valuable analysis regarding changing media and its impact on today's culture is fruitful and directly applicable to this unit specifically, and although the examples are already somewhat aged, as it was originally published in 2006, students will immediately realize that they carry around the ultimate black box in the form of a smart phone without a second thought, so the pervasiveness of Jenkins ideas is evident and worth investigating.
Understanding Personal Branding
The text, Branding Yourself: How to Use Social Media to Invent or Reinvent Yourself by Deckers and Lacy defines branding as "an emotional response to the image or name of a particular company, product, or person." So, if we follow this logic, then a writer's brand would want to elicit an emotional response of being 'eloquent' 'knowledgeable' and 'well-read'. If one is an artist, then the brand's intended emotional response would include 'creative'. If it focuses on all things related to being a mother, then the brand's intended emotional response would likely include being 'nurturing'. Once an individual understands the desired emotional response, then one can begin the work on creating that which is no small task. Determining the emotional response is simply step one.
McNally and Speak state, "Let's get straight to the point. Everybody already has a brand; your personal brand is a perception held in others' minds, and it has evolved through their interactions with you." 6 If one agrees with this premise, then there is value in finding out what the brand is currently and what one wants it to be. Additionally, one can deduce that good branding must be consistent, accessible, and memorable. Thinking in regard to our students, it is even more imperative that they understand what perception and emotional response is being evoked when others think of them especially given the digital footprint they are likely already creating that will be potentially accessible to future colleges and employers. Through this unit, they will explore personal branding through analysis of noteworthy people of today's popular culture. Then, students will critically analyze their own brand to see if it aligns with what they intended. After the self-analysis is conducted, students will then begin to craft branding with persuasive tropes in mind across multiple social media platforms.
Understanding Current Social Media Platforms
Students of 2014 are of a generation where information is one Google search away, and they scroll through 24 hours of happenings in several minutes according to their social media feeds. Also, and important to note, the above tasks are easy and quick. The information is styled in the fashion of fast food consumerism, fast 'fact' consumption if you will. So to meet our students in the world they live, we can look at how platform, audience, and persuasion work on popular social media mediums the youth, in mass, are already utilizing and actively familiar with a specific focus on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook..
Al-Deen & Hendricks point out, "the effect of the Internet on civic participation and political engagement is highly dependent on the individuals themselves, although the opportunities for engagement are present." 7 So, it is clear there is a platform accessible and ready for use that today's students are already comfortable and familiar with, but the need lies in how to capitalize on it and make it work to their benefit. To compare, watching television is now considered commonplace, but what is telling about a viewer is what channel they are choosing to tune in to. Our job as educators is to change the channel with our students to places online that are more productive, and guide them to platforms where they may have a positive, constructive voice.
Twitter as a Platform
In Social Media: Usage and Impact, when discussing youth activism, Deen states that, "…individuals and groups on Twitter are much more active compared to their Facebook counterparts in terms of online posting …and displayed a very active online presence" 8 This can easily be explained by looking at the forced brevity required by Twitter as a platform. Twitter is categorized as a micro-blog where users are relegated to posting in 140 characters or fewer. If a twitter user enjoys or is in agreement with another's tweet, he or she simply hit 'retweet' and have co-signed and further propelled that thought or idea forward. Twitter in short, is quick and easy. There are dangers that lie in the brevity and speed. First, often, if the point is complex, reading between the lines, or characters, is needed and much can get lost in the translation. Second, no real thought or contemplation is needed to 'pass it along'. It is one click and immediately visible. The responsibility is left solely on the shoulders of the user alone.
Instagram as a Platform
The tagline for Instagram is to 'capture and share world moments' and it is distinctly visual in its approach with a focus on photo and video and has the ability to apply digital filters. The cliché of a picture saying a thousand words comes to mind when I think of Twitter as opposed to Instagram. If Twitter allows a sentence at best, Instagram in a sense is the whole novel. Also, one has the ability to look at one photo or the collection as a whole, which can send a different, more holistic, message. Newly added is the ability to capture and post video, but there is a maximum length of only fifteen seconds in length. So again, the common theme of brevity still prevails across the different social media platforms. However, different impacts can be felt. For example, a tweet about a riot evokes a different reaction than a photo of a riot, and further profound of an impact is likely when viewing a 15 second video of a riot where sights and sounds can be taken in. When looking at persuasion in this arena of social media, special attention will be placed on the use of filters and how that is intentionally modifying the reality for the purpose of enhancement.
Facebook as a Platform
Although very widely used in the world and notably the platform listed here with the widest demographic of roughly 900 million, as cited in Deckers & Lacy 9, it is the oldest of the three, and as a possible repercussion of its age, it is the least popular among my students of the three social media mediums this unit focuses on. Historically, Facebook was limiting in its members only allowing university students access when using their college email the ability to create a profile, but after its popularity, anyone regardless of age or level of education had access to it. Further analysis on student usage is needed, and although it is noted as the least popular, most students still hold an active account and are extremely familiar with its layout and function. Additionally distinguishable from its Instagram and Twitter counterparts, is the depth and length of a Facebook profile. A wide variety of information is accessible, and it provides the most all-encompassing personal profile comparatively. Brevity is not something required or emphasized as it is in a tweet or fifteen second video post. In regard to this unit, Facebook will provide the best platform to showcase personal branding with depth.
Curriculum Objectives & Anticipated Outcomes
With a unit focused on persuasion, it is essential that students form a depth of understanding with persuasive techniques and their application to academic forms. Most importantly, however, the students should begin to cognitively and consciously create self-awareness with respect to where and how persuasion exists in their own lives, specifically regarding their relationship with the three designated social media platforms of Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. Students will acknowledge that the concept of 'buying what one is selling' is age old, and that in understanding the classic academic foundations behind these motivations, one can best comprehend and orient how it functions in their world today. Ultimately, this unit will create a conscious young adult who understands the method and power of platform, audience, and personal branding with both academic and real world applications.
There will be six essential questions within this unit that will serve as the goal and guiding light. In the end, if a student can answer each question with a depth of understanding that includes precise examples and connections to reading and subject matter previously presented, then they have proven mastery over the content. The six essential questions of this unit are: 1.Why is it important to be able to persuade someone? 2. How can we persuade others to accept our ideas when writing, speaking, and engaging online? 3. Why does audience matter when persuading in a public forum? 4. How can we obtain and sustain audience interest? 5. What implications do social media have on my own life, my generation, and future generations? 6. What is my brand?
This unit will focus on student centered, active learning that will encourage each child to be investigative and think critically about the changing world he or she lives in, and this will be attained by providing numerous and varied strategies which will be implemented throughout the nine week time frame.
Daily Reflective Writing
Reflective writing will provide students an outlet to release their thoughts on the information presented in a day's lesson or activity without ridged guideline or prompt. Especially since this content is so closely tied to their own lives, there will be rich opportunities for students to make tangible connections to their own interaction with social media and how it is effected given the new exposure to content, but it is important to note that this is merely a suggestion, and as long as they are reflecting on personal branding, social media, and/or persuasion, then it will fulfill the requirement of reflection. The only restriction will involve length of writing, and these writings will be housed in their classroom journals. This may be a rich source for them when they go to write their formal reflective academic essay at the end of the unit.
This unit focuses on non-fiction texts, and a large amount of excerpts and reading will be assigned relating to personal branding and pop culture where there will be a mixture of teacher assigned works and examples that students are required to select and find independently. For example, all students will be assigned read an excerpt from The Oprah Phenomenon titled "Oprah Winfrey's Branding of Personal Empowerment" 10 and in their literature circles, a discussion or leading question could be concerning O Magazine and how the advertisements, cover photo, and content selections must all align with her personal brand each month. Like most classroom reading circles, the parts will join back with the whole and synthesize their group's findings and discussion points and one person will be appointed to share to the class. Literature or reading circles give students an opportunity to dialogue with their peers and refine their ideas before sharing to a larger party. Further, since the entire effort aside from the actual reading, which will likely be as a homework assignment, is done collectively, there is less risk felt in being wrong.
Throughout this unit, a heavy emphasis is placed on critically looking at their own lives in relation to their social media platforms, so students will be required on many occasions to provide examples from their various social media feeds of persuasion or branding done effectively or ineffectively. The examples will then be discussed in class with the student leading in describing the context of their evidence and why it is or isn't persuasive or a good example of branding. If the content in a unit such as this isn't consistently being immediately utilized within the context of the student's own life, then it is not proving effective. The goal is that students find 'take-home' information in each lesson over the course of its nine weeks.
Using Socratic seminar as a strategy in this unit will allow for a space to discuss the essential questions of previously laid out in a scholarly discussion that is student led. Students will share, refute, and redefine their ideas of social media and its implications with the defined lens of persuasion. Since Socratic seminars are clearly defined in their perimeters, it will require that the students prepare for the discussion ahead of time and have salient opinions with sound evidence to support those points ready. As with all Socratic seminars, participation is key!
To show mastery of the concepts learned in the unit, students will be required to create a brand which can be centered on themselves or on a commodity, movement, or idea and use persuasive techniques and critical knowledge of branding to create a tangible representation of this which should be consistent, accessible, and memorable across the three pre-defined platforms of social media. Additionally, an oral presentation will be required to promote the brand, but a stronger emphasis on academic persuasive tropes, specifically ethos, pathos, and logos, will be the focus, and last, students will be required to write a grammatically, and mechanically sound academic reflective essay.
Specifically complicated in its logistics will be the student-produced persuasive branding example on the three social media platforms. This provides inherent issues with students interacting on social media as a requirement of class, and since it will be discussed that the feedback provided on social media is one of its biggest strengths for assessing success in branding, a cohort of people selected by the teacher will be used as their followers as followers are an essential component of social media and branding. Without the followers or audience, the project serves no real world application. Having a cohort of followers hand chosen by the teacher does three things. First, it eliminates the potential unpredictability for unwanted, inappropriate response from the random layperson on any one of these social media networks. Second, it allows a cohort to respond with their rationale for why a response was elicited or not to a particular post, photo, page, or tweet. Therefore, a place for constructive feedback and reflection is created from a constituent chosen by the teacher thus creating a controlled environment. Third, since the constituent of followers is consistent to all students, it will provide accurate comparative data as well as mimic real world usage as the students will only know small biographical information, if any at all, on these followers.
The cumulative project aims to materialize the essence of this unit into tangible evidence that will showcase student growth and knowledge. Additionally, and importantly, the project will provide an arena for guided practice with branding and social media. It is important that students will be able to test out theories they should later be applying to their own real persona on their own varied accounts. It is the students who have everything to lose if they do not protect their brand. They have one already, it is about what they chose to do with it, and this unit, specifically this cumulative project, allows them the space to have a dress rehearsal before the real show of their own social media feeds.
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